Recently, at the New York Jewish Film Festival, I saw a movie called “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” It’s a portrait of four ultra-Orthodox women in Israel and Brooklyn, all talking about the joys and pressures of having huge families. Mostly the joys. One woman, who’s been pregnant or nursing for 25 of the 26 years of her married life, sounds thrilled… though with eye makeup migrating down her face, an edge of hysteria in her voice, and an apartment that looks like an East Village squat circa 1981 after being ransacked by a crackhead, she isn’t depicted as a terribly reliable narrator. Anyway, the aforementioned woman and two of the others are overwhelmingly upbeat about having enough children to field a Little League team. But the woman who is portrayed most sympathetically has major issues. She feels that women in her community don’t truly have a choice about how many children to have, and says there’s a sense of competition about who can be the most prolific birther. And she feels that huge families often come at the expense of the children’s well-being. As one of 16 siblings — forced to sleep at a neighbor’s house because there was no room for her at home — she felt unseen by her own mother. Today she works with babies and pregnant women and tries to urge her fellow ultra-Orthodox women to think for themselves about family planning. She herself received dispensation from her rebbe to use birth control, and has “only” four children.
Director Shosh Shlam, speaking after the screening at Lincoln Center, said that since the movie was shown in Israel, this woman has been snubbed in her community and her husband has received phone calls from people yelling at him to control his wife. One of the other women in the film was angry that any alternate point of view had been included at all.
The whole subject got me thinking. “Be fruitful and multiply” is, literally, the mother of all commandments. It’s the first communication between God and humanity, Adam and Eve. We’re told to breed. As most of the women in “Be Fruitful and Multiply” say, having babies means they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.
But what about those Jewish women who don’t want babies? In most of the Jewish world, women who’ve chosen to be child free (the preferred term today; “childless” has gone the way of “Oriental” and “shiksa,” off to the land of biased speech) are considered oddballs at best, freaks at worst. My friend Mindy* stopped going to events at a Jewish women’s organization because she was pretty much made to feel like JoJo the Dogfaced Boy from the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. “I was peppered with questions about my kids constantly,” she told me. “If I said I didn’t have them, the other woman would coo, ‘You mean not yeeeet.’ Or she’d look stricken and say: ‘I’m sorry! I know a good doctor who can help you!’ If I said,‘No, I’m not planning to have children,’ I’d hear, ‘Oh, you’ll miss a lot.’”
Even women who’ve grown up spouting the rhetoric of choice, who frown at homophobia and hum the songs from “Free to Be… You and Me,” can’t quite wrap their brains around choosing not to breed. Mindy nearly clocked a childhood friend who said to her, “You’re so lucky you don’t have kids, because you don’t have to worry about the future.” This friend apparently forgot that Mindy has spent most of her free time, from college on, volunteering for peace, family and children’s advoc acy organizations. “But because I don’t have children,
suddenly I have no investment in social justice?” Mindy asked, sputtering.
It’s also one of those subjects that makes people super-duper condescending. “Ooh, have you thought this decision through?” “You’ll change your mind when you’re in your late 30s and your biological clock starts going off like a gong!” “You think you don’t like babies… but you’ll like your own!” Mindy rolls her eyes at such comments. “I’m not broken just because I don’t feel the same way as you,” she told me. “Yet people perpetually question my choice, thinking they have license because motherhood is the highest calling you can have. They think the act of giving birth to a child magically makes them a better person.”
So why doesn’t Mindy want kids? “I just don’t find child-related activities interesting,” she told me. “I don’t ever look at babies or pregnant women and think, ‘Ah, that’s what I want.’ I never have. Asking me why I’m not a mother is like asking me why I’m not a lion tamer. It’s a fundamental lack of interest.”
The women in “Be Fruitful and Multiply” would find Mindy baffling. In one scene in the film, a bunch of them sit gossipping about a child-free woman with whom one of them had a conversation at the zoo. How could she have chosen not to have children? She’s denying the fullest flower of her destiny, the richest source of her identity as a woman! She must be mentally ill! She thinks she’s happy, but she isn’t! I seethed as I watched… and right after the screening, I said something markedly similar. Talking about the film with my brother (an assistant curator for media at The Jewish Museum, and a member of the Jewish Film Festival’s selection committee), I said I thought there were plenty of valid reasons women might choose not to have kids, but I simply couldn’t believe there were women who didn’t feel some biological pull to spawn.
Andy was far too polite to say so, but his expression immediately told me that I’d said something outré. I shouldn’t have assumed that everyone has certain biological urges simply because I do. (Even now, with two kids sharing a bedroom the size of a refrigerator box and barely enough money to keep the girls in string cheese and eczema cream, I feel massive, illogical cravings for a third child.) But saying everyone shares my longings is like saying everyone’s heterosexual because I am, or thinks “Project Runway” is the best thing on television because I do. (But really, you should watch it.)
Until that moment, though, I thought that while women who’d made a conscious decision not to have children were certainly making a legitimate choice, they were denying some deep desire. Maybe they had lousy parents, or had fears about the future of our planet. I admitted this to Mindy, who generously refrained from whacking me upside the head. “Believe me, I’ve talked about it in therapy,” she said. “Am I in denial? At some deep level, do I actually crave children? A lot of people do deny how they feel, just like in ‘Brokeback Mountain’! But I’ve honestly never felt even a moment’s urge.”
And the pressure to reproduce is more intense in the Jewish community than in the culture at large. “I distinctly remember being taught in Sunday school that choosing to remain childless is a sin as deliberate as choosing not to keep kosher,” my friend Gita said. “I also think Judaism has so much of a cultural bias toward having kids that a lot of Jews simply can’t conceive — pun intended — of not wanting children. And then, of course, there’s the whole ‘replenish the tribe to make up for the Holocaust’ stuff, which seriously creeps me out.” Gita, too, said that she’s never felt the slightest urge to become a mother. “Even when I was a wee tot, I never wanted a baby doll,” she said. “And I remember being about 11 and learning about birth control, and suddenly making the huge logical leap to ‘Oh! So being an adult doesn’t mean I have to have a baby!’ — and feeling enormously relieved.”
Okay, so Mindy’s and Gita’s feelings are nothing like mine. We still have more similarities than differences. We’re all politically progressive, we all understand the importance of moisturizer, we all get our pets from shelters instead of breeders, and we all think my children are adorable geniuses. So we have to be careful not to let the Kid Issue divide us. After all, a few months ago, in Commentary, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s provost/chief academic officer, Jack Wertheimer, lamented the low birth rate among non-Orthodox Jews. He blasted certain Jewish women for focusing on higher education “at the cost of other values” and for viewing “child rearing as a chore best left to others.” The problems in that worldview are another thing that my educated, accomplished and happily child-free friends and I can agree on.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Names have been changed.